By Juliane Rühl

Hidden in the 20th arrondissement is the office of Afrikadaa, a magazine of contemporary African art. I met Pascale Obolo, its Editor-in-Chief, to discuss the question of the self-identification of contemporary African artists. In our conversation, she underscored that the magazine primarily – but not exclusively – features the views of African artists on contemporary art and related issues.

Pascale is a progressive young woman whose beliefs appeared to be just as clear-cut as the layout of Afrikadaa. I would realize after just a few minutes of talking to her that, beyond the question I had raised, lay a whole armada of issues pertaining to millennials with Afropean roots. How could you define the identity of “an artist of African origin”? How do artists refer to their descent themselves? Even these questions do not begin to adequately frame the problem of identity which is, and has always been, a contextual concept.

Obola at the Tarifa Festival of African cinema. Photo Credit: Carlos Otero, Flickr CC

Obola at the Tarifa Festival of African cinema. Photo Credit: Carlos Otero, Flickr CC

Diving deeper into this highly complex topic, I came across a living example of the “identity issue” – Hassan Musa, a Sudanese-born graphic artist, writer and philosopher residing in Southern France. Terms frequently used to describe his collage-like paintings are “thought-provoking”, and “critical of Western art, politics and culture”. When asked about his identity, Musa refers to himself neither as an African nor as a European, but as a “contemporary artist” – an answer that, from him ,somehow appears as natural as referring to oneself as a human being. Indeed, Musa is not just “African” or “Sudanese”, he is, above all, a critic of the stigmatization of African artists, whose lives between two cultures represent a mirror of our times.

In her movie ‘La Femme Invisible’, Pascale Obolo touches upon the issue of social cleavage between migrants and their host society, making a reference to Ralph Ellison’s book ‘The Invisible Man’, which criticized the living conditions of Afro-Americans in the US during the 1950s. In her own work, Pascale tries to illustrate the paradox between the indispensability of migrant workers for the French economy and their simultaneous invisibility within French society. Saturated states tend to gloat over being the driving force of globalization and what they call progress, but forget one thing: the process of globalization is, by definition, driven by migration. So, those whom they want to keep invisible are, in fact, the means for reaching and maintaining their pseudo-hegemony over defining the world’s future.

The question of identity is not absolute, but relational, in terms of status. France´s former President Sarkozy’s famous 2007 speech in Dakar underscores this forgone hypothesis. By saying that “the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history […] They have never really launched themselves into the future”, Sarkozy might have insulted many Senegalese students, but also spoke an ugly truth: during all these years the West has been the writer of  history. And today, the West’s hegemony over trade has equaled a supremacy over the right to define which artists are allowed to exhibit.

Today’s world has reached a stage of unprecedented freedom of circulation in terms of commodities, and unprecedented restrictions of freedom of movement for individuals. This dichotomy also applies to artists. Recently, the UK refused to give an artist of African origin a visa to attend the opening of his own exhibition at the Tate Modern. Such double standards exist everywhere.

“We can only remain within the range of possibilities that the industrialized nations have designed for us.  The exterior always brings us back to our African origins – something we ourselves would probably never even talk about. Have you ever seen an American or European artist being reduced to his or her ethnic background to be allowed in a museum?” asks Pascale Obolo. All the cultural institutions based in Paris show hardly any sign of interest in working with Afrikadaa.

“It seems as if France doesn’t want to acknowledge that the African continent is no longer a colony of theirs but that it has launched into the future, also in terms of arts and culture.”

Hasan Musa’s works were exhibited in the Gallery of African Art in London this year. The Centre Pompidou is beginning to sporadically invite contemporary African painters. Yet, it still appears unacceptable for the Global North to accept critique coming from the South.

“But with the debate that exists today between ideas of the South versus those of the North, and the economic and political strengthening of emerging countries such as the BRIC, I believe that we will also experience a change in the global rhetoric where art is concerned”, concludes Obolo.

Pascale’s recommendation for the Western countries is to give Africa and her artists more freedom in developing and adapting to globalization à l’Africaine.

“Africa has so much innovative potential. Moreover art can break given boundaries that politics or diplomacy might not reach.” If its discourse can break the borders of identity and race, this would be a critical step forward towards a more progressive and more innovative world – for everyone.

Featured Image Credit: Carlos Otero, Flickr CC. License available here.